The Middle Of The Story And The Story Of The Middle

On the Torah page, the miracle of Passover’s seventh day comes into view. The Torah page literally pictures Israel crossing the sea—glistening black letters against sea foam parchment.  The words are inscribed according to the script:

middle of the sea2

Look! There are the people of Israel walking between the steep wall of the sea’s last letter—mem—on the right and the parallel wall of the first letter of the seahey—on the left.

Look! There they are! There we are—especially at Passover time—in the middle of the sea in the middle of the story; in need of protection and sustenance; hoping to recognize ourselves in the middle of the sea, in the middle of the story.  An ancient sage taught that such benefits of the middle come only with persistence:

If they walked on dry ground, why does it say that they passed in the middle of the sea? Only for you to learn that the sea did not split for them until they came into the middle of it, up to their nostrils; only then did it become dry ground for them.

Another sage added to the fantastic account of the middle ground, assuring us that it offered not only passage, but provision:

Rabbi Nehorai taught: a Hebrew woman crossing the sea with her crying child could reach out and take an apple or a pomegranate from the middle of the sea and give it to him, as it says: He led them through the depths as though through the wilderness (Psalm 106:9) Just as in the wilderness they lacked nothing, so in the depths they lacked nothing; as Moses would say to them: These forty years the Lord your God was with you and you lacked nothing (Deut. 2:7).

(Click for midrash text in Hebrew and English)

But in the middle of a pressing moment, even a miracle doesn’t neutralize anxiety. The poet, Yehuda Amichai, re-imagined the walls of water through the eyes of an anxious escapee focused only on moving forward, taking …at most, a hurried glance to the side, fish of many colors behind a wall of water, like in an aquarium, behind a wall of glass.

(Click here for entire Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)

Yet, look! The poet teaches that it is possible to carry our moments while keeping in mind the larger story:

What is the continuity of my life? I am like one who left Egypt
with the Red Sea split in two and I passing through on dry ground
and two walls of water on my right and on my left.
Behind me Pharaoh’s force and his chariots and before me the wilderness
and perhaps the promised land. This is the continuity of my life.

(Click here for poem in Hebrew and English)

Look! There is the poet, among the others passing through the middle of the page, in the middle of the sea; water left and right; certain death behind and uncertain future ahead; continuity drawing him into the story and continuity following after him. Look! There is the poet in the middle of the story holding the story in the middle of himself; carried by the story while carrying it.

Perhaps such an idea influenced a teaching about the Passover Hagaddah by the Hasidic master known as the Sefat Emet. He returned to the wonder of the dry ground in the middle of the sea:

If he had split the sea for us but not brought us through it on dry ground—it would have been enough, dayyeinu!:

At the very least the ground should have been muddy! But the Torah says that the people of Israel came into the middle of the sea on dry ground (Exodus 14:22). And this is the essence of the wonder: that Israel walked into the actual sea—but for them, it was dry ground. If it had ceased to actually be the sea, it wouldn’t have been such a wonder; for the blessed Holy One could certainly turn water into dry ground. But out of love for Israel the blessed Holy One made it so that while it was still sea, it was also dry ground for Israel.

(Click for the Hasidic text in Hebrew and English)

Look! Here we are at Passover time walking into the middle of the story—into the story of the middle; wading deep until the sea offers us both passage and provision; until the middle of the sea offers us what we need in the middle of a journey: both water that makes us buoyant with imagination to see ourselves in the story, and dry ground that offers us sure footing to move forward.


This entry was posted in Holidays, Midrash, Passover, Poetry. Bookmark the permalink.

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